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County mired in landfill debate

Citrus County commissioners got deeper into debate over how to recoup losses at the county landfill Tuesday, failing to agree on details of a proposed tax assessment.

The so-called Municipal Service Benefit Unit, or MSBU, if approved by commissioners, could mean an annual assessment of $60 per home and guarantee income to the landfill. Commissioners say they plan to reduce the landfill's $60-a-ton tipping fee to zero, allowing in-county trash to be dumped free. In the past year, the landfill has faced the loss of half of the normal trash it would receive to less-expensive, out-of-county facilities.

Commissioners also have pledged to make trash-hauling companies pass along their savings by reducing rates. But at the meeting Tuesday, it was clear that commissioners have a lot of talking to do.

While discussing ways to assess businesses based on their differing amounts of trash generated, Commission Chairman Jim Fowler suggested that the county charge a fee directly to garbage hauling companies based on a per-cubic-yard rate.

Commissioner Vicki Phillips said she wasn't sold on the idea.

"We can make this as complicated as we want to make it," she said. "Or we can make this as simple as we want to make it."

Commissioner Gary Bartell said the conversation was confusing him. "I haven't even concurred with a zero tipping fee at this point," he said.

Commissioner Brad Thorpe said he hopes to wait until after Thursday, when County Administrator Gary Kuhl is to meet with garbage hauling company representatives to hear their thoughts on the proposals aimed at bailing the landfill out of a $5-million debt.

Thorpe said, though, that an MSBU appears to be the best option, for the moment. "Unless I hear something that's better and easier, I'm going to stick with what I've got right now," he said.

Also Tuesday, all five commissioners said they were upset about a recent proposal made by Property Appraiser Ron Schultz that the county could accomplish its planned upgrades of water and sewer systems with an increase in property taxes instead of an increase in the county's sales tax.

"I think he's way out of line," said Commissioner Roger Batchelor.

"His responsibilities, I believe, lie with the Property Appraiser's Office," Bartell said.

The board agreed to send Schultz a letter telling him that he is welcome to approach the commission with his ideas, and should do so in the future.

Schultz recently contacted State Rep. Nancy Argenziano, a Republican who represents Citrus in Tallahassee, about the idea. In her response letter, Argenziano wrote that she predicts the County Commission may bring the property tax option forward if the sales tax referendum fails.

The 1-cent sales tax increase, up for a vote in an April 22 referendum, is the option that commissioners favor to pay for a long list of water-related improvements.

Phillips wrote Argenziano back a letter, saying "I am totally shocked" that the issue would be brought to her instead of to the board.

In other action, the commission approved Kuhl's employment contract as county administrator, with a starting annual salary of $80,000, slightly lower than the salary brought before the board after initial negotiations. Phillips cast the lone "nay" vote; she said she thought the salary still is too high.

Also at the meeting, commissioners voted to accept the Willard Avenue bridge in Homosassa after seeing an engineering report certifying the bridge as safe.

The bridge is the only link to Cherokee Trace, a 5-acre development that owner David Stewart says has been in limbo now for 14 years.

To receive the unanimous approval now, with no board discussion, does not sit well with Stewart, who berated commissioners for blocking his development.

He asked for a public apology, and he asked commissioners whether they would be willing to buy the land for a park, but none at the table offered a response.

"I'd like to get these things settled amicably," Stewart said. "I need more than an acceptance of the bridge."

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